Something Important Has Occurred

Four teenagers sit around a kitchen table at 10:30 on a Friday night. No one quite knows how, but over time, their conversation deepens, and before the night ends, they feel as if something important has occurred.

I tell people who ask that I became a writer to get the girls, and while that is definitely true (after all, it’s the only way I ever have), I also became a writer because I wanted to capture the conversations I had with my friends around that kitchen table, not their content, per se, but their feeling, the feeling that something important has occurred.

I sometimes feel bad about calling myself a writer. Yes, most of my jobs came to me because of my writing, but I have yet to publish a book or an article (outside of some reviews for a now-defunct website three or four years ago), and my fiction has never been published by a reputable source. Without a published credit to my name, what right do I have to call myself a writer?

I’m 40 years old today. I’ve been calling myself a writer for at least 27 of those years — from the moment an attractive girl told me she liked my writing. Boom. Done. You like my writing? That’s what I’ll do with my life then. Boom. I’m a writer. Done.

The first job I ever earned on my own was as a copywriter for a small recruitment-advertising agency on the outskirts of Boston. True, my brother got me the original job (as a receptionist), but I earned the right to call myself a copywriter.

The second job I earned was as a member of the adjunct faculty at a small liberal arts college, where I was responsible for teaching younger students the art and craft of writing. Between landing the first job and the second, I’d earned a Bachelor’s degree in Theories of Writing and a Master’s degree in Creative Writing.

I’d also landed my wife thanks in no small part to my writing. We fell in love studying writing, literature, and philosophy together, and we exchanged some of our most loving looks over the keyboards of our computers. I didn’t write her love letters as much as I wrote her love papers, turned in for a grade, but written for her.

I call myself a writer not because I publish novels or have my byline over long think-pieces in a variety of influential magazines. I call myself a writer because that’s how I engage with the world. The “me on the keyboard” is the best version of me that I know, the one who genuinely wants to reach out and take your hand, and sit, and talk, and before the text ends, have both of us feel that something important has occurred.

Writing isn’t a hobby for me, something I do late at night after everyone has gone to bed. Writing is who I am.

I spoke recently with a friend about my urge to become a professional writer. Right now, I am a professional teacher (as well as a builder of an ideal school), and while I love virtually every minute of it, I still have this urge to become a professional writer, to have someone pay me to write pretty much whatever I want, whether it comes in the form of a novel, a children’s book, a political op-ed, a research-based article, or something else entirely, chosen by me, written by me, and published at someone else’s expense, with some of that expense coming back to me in the form of a paid bill (ideally, my student loans).

But becoming a professional writer requires a lot of hustle, and I’ve never been accused of being the most hard-working person on the planet. That’s why, despite the urge, I have never truly pursued that goal.

So, if I don’t have a credit to my name, what kind of a writer am I? That’s easy: I’m a self-published one, hanging out here on the Internet, for free, just waiting for someone to happen by, and sit, and talk, and feel (with me) that something important has occurred.

You know what feels nice? The idea that some day, my now four-year-old daughter will sit down read all of this — this little blog of mine — and she’ll know me in a way that few children ever get to know their parents. She’ll have access to my day-in and day-out and essentially unvarnished tangle of thoughts.

She’ll know I was dumb enough to convince myself that the Celtics could defeat Lebron James in his prime; and that when our society was challenged by climate change and the political ineptitude of Presidents George W. Bush and Donald Trump, I did the only thing I knew how to do, which was to argue, both verbally and in writing, with anyone who supported their administrations’ corrupt and disastrous policies; and that when our country was forced to choose between security and liberty, I always came down on the side of liberty; and that I valued art and dynamism over money and the status quo; and that I believed Jerry Garcia’s guitar playing deserved to be categorized next to the teachings of Lao-Tzu; and so much more.

This blog won’t be the only way she’ll know her father, but years from now, when, for whatever reason, she’s missing me, she’ll have this, my voice and my spirit, telling her for all time that I love her.

And once again, something important will have occurred. And the most important girl who ever entered my world will read something I wrote, and love me.

Because this is who I am, and someday, this text will be all that is left. And even then, when my body is gone, I’ll still be here, my voice and my spirit, telling you, whoever you are, that I love you too.

“Il faut cultiver notre jardin.”

I find imagining the future difficult. The mind reels with possibilities: climate change, global-nuclear war, the eradication of the bees, a nonviolent message received from outer space, unheard of diseases unleashed from the jungles of Africa or the Amazon, peak oil, clones, fundamentalist revivals, race wars, alien attacks, food shortages, the violent revolt of the wage slaves, messiahs, media whores, stray asteroids, scientifically engendered black holes, zombies, multidimensional visitors, the rise of the machine, genderless children, pets that can talk, casual space travel, downloadable talents, the rediscovery of wizardry, the Kraken, virtual realities, the return of the gods, bioengineered immortality, the descent of the nation-state, water wars, microchips implanted by corporate overlords, anarchy in the U.K.

Understanding the present isn’t much better. We learn narratives from the media — terrorism, Trump, and trade, with an ever-increasing side of racial tension — and we ignore whatever doesn’t belong in the narrative. We imbue ourselves in the present dynamic, find our place, our space, and our pace in the fluidity of local time, connecting ourselves to the world as best we can but always and forever remaining local to our moment and blocked from a global sense of truth.

And the past is no treat either, with revisionism and rediscovered records changing what we thought we knew. Diminishing power structures reveal more detail or more shades of perspective on whatever historic event catches our attention: Indians becoming Native Americans becoming indigenous people, revelations of homosexuality and transgenderism all throughout history, post-colonial truths critiquing the received mythologies of empire after empire, the continued disclosure of millennias of male-dominated incompetence, minor skirmishes and hitherto unknown strategic blunders attaining their rightful places in the narratives of long-ago.

There’s no singular place on which to focus, no foundation on which to build: the future is a mystery, the present is chaotic, and the past is a mythologized power play. Where does one turn for hope?

I mow my lawn. I listen to the birds sing. I see my neighbors pack into their cars and drive off for a day of errands, and I smile and wave as they pass me by.

Il faut cultiver notre jardin.

Leveling Up: Madden 15 & One Man’s Look At 40

I just lost a pre-season game in Madden 15. I play as the Kansas City Chiefs, a football team I know nothing about, and what’s more, I’m six seasons in on Franchise Mode, which means that, due to six seasons of retirements, injuries, failed contract negotiations, and 35 rounds of drafts, I also know nothing about most of the league’s players — Tom Brady does not exist in my game; instead, most of the players are computer-generated results of Madden‘s pre-programmed algorithm, each team filled with truly fictional characters.

As I said, I know nothing about the Kansas City Chiefs, but after five seasons, I have just about memorized their playbook (or at least, the playbook as defined by the creators of Madden 15). I have also set the ticket prices for their stadium, upgraded their parking lot and concession booths, adjusted the discounts on their team jerseys, and experimented with the prices on their commemorative footballs. I’ve done just about everything to this franchise that the game of Madden 15 has allowed.

All of which is to say that I play it lot. It’s the only console game I’ve played for almost a year, and I play a console game at the end of almost every night.

Last season, I won the Super Bowl on the All-Pro Level. I had to replay the AFC Divisional round three times before I finally won, but I destroyed the opposing team in the AFC Conference Championship and won a solidly fought game in the Super Bowl. It was my first Super Bowl on the All Pro Level in five seasons, and I felt like I actually earned something.

So this season, I switched to the All Madden Level.

About 15 or 16 years ago, after playing every season’s release since Madden 92 (originally for Sega Genesis), I quit playing Madden video games. I had never been a great player of Madden, but I could hold my own against most human players and play well against the computer (provided it wasn’t on the All Madden Level).

But then, about 15 or 16 years ago, Madden just got too hard for me. With the strength of third and fourth generation consoles and over a decade of intellectual property behind it, Madden made the leap from being a fun video game to becoming a football simulator. Each iteration brought some new mechanical complexity, some new graphical upgrade, some new strategic depth, and each edition pushed the game deeper and deeper into the nitty gritty details of football. It wasn’t fun anymore. It was work.

There were too many other video games to play, and no real interest in work, so years of Madden video games passed me by.

Two years ago, with twenty seconds left in Super Bowl XLIX and the opposing team about to score the go-ahead touchdown from the one-yard line, Malcolm Butler intercepted Russell Wilson’s pass, sealing the victory for the New England Patriots, and in my excitement, I bought Madden 15 for Xbox 360 (a used copy of the previous year’s version). In the glow of my team’s Super Bowl win, I played the game for a little while, but when summer came and I started playing basketball again, I put it down and returned to the other game I’d been playing, NBA2k14.

Then, with this year’s Patriots season and the drama of Tom Brady’s four-game suspension, I found myself paying more attention to football than I usually do, and at some point during the season, I switched NBA2K for Madden, except this time, instead of just diving into a game, I invested my daily allotted console time to Madden‘s training mode. Instead of playing a simulated football game for 45 minutes, I played with a simulated football-training simulator for 45 minutes.

The simulator taught me about Cover-1, Cover-2, and Cover-3 defenses, how to play them and how to attack them. It made me practice a wide variety of running moves, each of which I had to execute with split-second precision on the game’s 10-button controller. It taught me how to adjust the assignments of the offensive linemen to pick up a blitz. It introduced me to the concept of the key defender, taught me to spot him before I snapped the ball, and trained me to to key my read of the coverage based on that one defender’s movements. I learned when to lob the ball and when to throw a bullet, and how and when to throw behind or to the opposite side of the receiver. It introduced me to various tackling strategies and taught me how to increase the tackler’s aggression or desperation level as necessary.

After completing over sixty different tutorials and drills, I finally felt ready to play the game, so I set the level to All Pro, and had at it. Five seasons later, I won the Super Bowl — though as I said above, I had to replay the AFC Divisional round three times (I forced the replays because, earlier in the season, my star wide-receiver rejected my offer to extend his contract and my star running-back was getting old and his skills were declining; if I wanted to win the Super Bowl anytime soon, it had to be with last season’s team, so even though I lost twice in a row in the Divisional round, I wasn’t going to stop until I beat the computer, fair and square, which I eventually did after my third try). After 15 years, five seasons, and only two extra replays, as my imaginary players stood on the field celebrating their victory, I felt as if I actually accomplished something.

I turn 40 years old in one week’s time.

I rewarded myself by increasing the level of the video game. It’s now set to All Madden, the highest level possible. The game isn’t merciful anymore; it doesn’t forgive mistakes. Hesitate too long, and it’ll score a touchdown. Overrun the ball carrier, and it’ll score a touchdown. Misread the coverage, and it’ll intercept your pass or sack you for a 12-yard loss. Nothing is forgiven.

But it plays honestly as well. Time your throw right, and it’ll give you the first down. Follow the right run blocker, and it’ll give you twenty yards more. Read the right defender, and it’ll let you take the ball deep, but — and this is important — it will force you to catch the ball on your own — because everything is earned at the All Madden Level and nothing is given.

In my last two pre-season games, Madden 15 destroyed me. In the first game, my first at the All Madden Level, the computer forced me to endure a 48-7 loss. It ran for 206 yards, threw for 176 more, had zero turnovers (while forcing four on me), and required just one third-down conversion on its way to complete domination on both sides of the field.

The second game I played (just now) ended in a 27-14 loss. The computer ran for 207 yards, threw for 110, had zero turnovers (while forcing three on me), and required three third-down conversions on its way to complete domination on both sides of the field.

As the players shook hands on the field and the replays of the various highlights played across the screen, I thought to myself, Shit, maybe I’m not ready to play at this level.

But just as I thought it, the Madden announcer said, “That’s why you play at this level.”

And I thought, He’s absolutely right. I moved from All Pro to All Madden because I wanted a new challenge, and if something is going to challenge me, it’s going to begin with my failure. As I tell my students every day, failure is not a bad thing; failure is how we learn.

Yes, Madden 15 kicked my ass these last two nights. But I went from scoring one touchdown to scoring two; from allowing 48 points to allowing 27; from giving up 176 passing yards to giving up 110. The end result might be the same (I lost), but I know I played the game better. And I know I’ll play the next one even better than that.

I put a lot of effort into getting here — five hard-earned seasons — and I’ll be damned if I’m going to slink back to All Pro just because I lost two games in the pre-season. I might not be winning right away, but I’m going to stick with it.

I’m 40 years old in one week’s time, and it’s time to level up.

I Joyfully Disagree

A few years ago, I had an argument with my brother that lasted a little over four hours. It started around 10pm and ended after 2am. We argued the entire time. By the time we both went to bed, we were slightly upset with one another, but thankfully, the negative energy didn’t carry beyond the following morning.

Several weeks ago, I had an argument with my cousin-in-law. It also started late at night and ended sometime early in the morning. This one involved a myriad of people standing outside at a party, but he and I started it and he and I finished it. At one point, he physically threw me up against a wall, but at no point did I feel that we were actually upset with one another.

I do this a lot.

A couple of days ago, I argued with three of my students for forty-five minutes straight, only stopping because the clock told us we had to. While one of the students grew verbally exasperated with me during the argument, and another seemed to get silently so, at no point did I feel like they wanted the argument to stop.

I do this all the time.

I’m not entirely sure where this personality trait originates. My family argued a lot growing up, and my best friend and I used to (and still do) argue all the time, but I don’t know how much was nurture or how much was nature.

I’ve even bought into the astrological argument on this one, despite telling myself I don’t believe in astrology. While I understand and agree with all of the arguments that explain why I shouldn’t agree with astrology, when it comes to being a Gemini, for me, it simply feels true.

As Astrology.com explains it:

[Talking is] not just idle chatter with these folks… The driving force behind a Gemini’s conversation is their mind. The Gemini-born are intellectually inclined, forever probing people and places in search of information. The more information a Gemini collects, the better. Sharing that information later on with those they love is also a lot of fun, for Geminis are supremely interested in developing their relationships.

Forever probing; collecting and sharing information for the pure joy of it; and developing relationships through this method — it sounds like a person who loves to argue (and who loves to blog).

The argument with my brother started because he endorsed the Confederate flag. The argument with my cousin-in-law started because he supported Judge Gorsuch’s nomination to the Supreme Court (and as a lawyer, he thought he knew of what he spoke). The argument with my three students started because they doubted that there is such a thing as altruism.

These are all good arguments.

My brother argued that the Confederate flag doesn’t have to stand for racism. It can also stand for rock n’roll in the way that Bo & Luke Duke were rock n’roll. It can stand for bad-assness, that brand of American individuality that flouts convention and shoots from the hip. After all, it comes from Confederacy not just of slaveholders, but of rebels. My brother’s argument wasn’t wrong.

My cousin-in-law argued that, when it comes to the Supreme Court, the best judges would be textualists. It’s not the Supreme Court’s job to do what it thinks is morally right. Our country’s morals and values should be democratically determined through a legislative process whereby competing interests make their best arguments and majority opinions rule the day (tempered by the minority’s right to continue the argument even when they don’t have the votes, forcing the legislature to arrive at some kind of near consensus). It’s a drawn-out and dirty way to determine our society’s values, but it’s the best method anyone’s come up with yet to balance the rights of the individual with the obligations of a society.

To best protect those democratically determined values, we want a Supreme Court that restrains itself to the values entombed in a text that the people themselves have agreed upon (through their elected representatives). The Supreme Court should not make rulings because of some kind of prevailing societal wind whose presence can sometimes only be sensed by five out of the nine judges. My cousin-in-law’s argument was not wrong.

My students argued that altruism doesn’t exist because human beings have evolved to sometimes seek experiences that will increase the flow of dopamine in the brain (altruism has been shown to be associated with dopamine). In other words, we don’t act altruistic because we’re nice people; we act altruistic because it gets us a little high. Since the unselfish acts required for altruism ultimately reward the self, the act’s altruistic origin is false. My students’ argument was not wrong.

And yet, argue with all of them I did.

I tried to explain to my brother that, while what he was saying wasn’t wrong, the violence of slavery was so horrific that its symbol should only be able to exist in history books and museums. I didn’t disagree that any individual anywhere has the right to wave whatever flag they choose to wave, but just because they have the right to do so doesn’t mean that they should. It’s a sad world when someone tells you that the flag you’re waving creates a sense of visceral fear and/or horror in their hearts, and they have all the facts of history to support their emotional response as a reasonable reaction, and yet, just because you can, you continue to wave the flag. That’s not an act of rebellion; that’s just disrespect and hate.

I tried to explain to my cousin-in-law that, while textualism sounds like a great method for interpreting the law, I’d rather have judges who share the majority’s understanding of fairness, regardless of the intricacies of the text that fairness should be based on. In addition, when a judge has a clear preference for finding for the rights of corporations over the rights of individuals (as Justice Gorsuch has been shown to do), then that judge isn’t capable of (or interested in) defending the people against the moneyed interests who have corrupted the legislative process that is responsible for those texts.

To be a textualist, then, is to be a judge who openly declares his faith in a system of laws whose creation is funded and driven by a combination of multinational corporations and the richest individuals who run them. Corporations do not need any more influence in our government than they already have, but the confirmation of Justice Gorsuch gave them not just one more representative, but one more incredibly powerful representative whose preference for the corporate interest will have an effect for generations.

I tried to explain to my students that, while altruistic acts ultimately reward the individual with dopamine, that doesn’t mean altruism doesn’t exist. For two reasons, the first of which is a question of timing, and the second of which is a question of semantics — of where you locate the meaning of altruism.

The process of altruism leading to an increase in dopamine is an evolved process, which means that at some point, some creature (possibly pre-chordates) did something altruistic, and then, and only then, was the dopamine triggered, the joyful experience of which created the drive to do something nice again, even if only to get a little buzzed again.

The same process probably happens in the development of young children: first they do something nice (probably because they were taught to), and then, and only then, can the dopamine be triggered.

But until they (chordates or children) actually commit the altruistic act, they can’t know that it will result in the joyful release of dopamine, and so, wouldn’t the impulse to altruism have to come first, rather than the reward of the dopamine?

Even if a child only commits an altruistic act because their parent(s) taught them that it’s right to do so, they must first do so not because of the reward they’ll receive (which they know nothing about) but because it’s the right thing for them to do.

The second reason is that it doesn’t actually matter how the drive to be altruistic evolved. Obviously, for social creatures such as ourselves, being altruistic makes it easier to live among the group and, hence, to survive long enough to create the next generation of altruists, which of course passes on the genes for altruism (including too, perhaps, the genes for listening to one’s elders). But this doesn’t change the fact that the person doing the altruistic act does so to be helpful.

Yes, there is a biological and evolutionary reward, but if there’s one thing that defines the human species, it’s that we’ve evolved to transcend our bodies, hence the evolutionary and transcendent gifts of language, culture, and technology. Just because something finds it origin in our biology doesn’t mean we ought to locate its meaning there as well.

The meaning of altruism exists beyond the body — this is in some ways its definition: a helpful act extending from one’s body and through which nothing good is expected in return. Just because something good is returned (the joyful flood of dopamine) doesn’t discount the fact that nothing good was expected. It’s that lack of an expectation (factual or not) that defines altruism; not the gene that floods the brain inside our bodies, but the lack of an expectation that something good will come to us from outside of our bodies.

It was a long and complex argument with many twists and turns and a healthy amount of crossover, and by the end, we seem to agree to disagree. My students are damn smart, and they know, themselves, how to make an argument.

Regardless, this is who I am: the Gemini who’s going to argue with you, not because I’m angry (rarely) or passionate (often), but because it just feels so damn fun to do.

Boston Defense

I’ve been spending the last few weeks trying to understand what it means to be a fan from Boston.

The topic first came up in my classroom, when two of my colleagues (one of whom is a Yankees fan and the other of whom is a Lebron fan) accused Boston of being a terrible place to play sports. Later that day, I learned about an incident at a recent Red Sox game when a bunch of Boston fans yelled racist slurs at an opposing player, an incident that sparked a national conversation about racism in Boston.

I am a Boston fan, and I know Boston is racist because Bill Russell said Boston is racist. As a lifelong Celtics fan who was raised on the original Big Three of Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, and Robert Parish, I love and revere Bill Russell, and if this person whom I love tells me Boston is racist, I have to believe him, just as I would have to believe Tom Brady if he told me Vince Wilfork was gay.

Russell’s statement is corroborated by players in a variety of leagues. There is no dispute of this. I know Boston is racist.

But Boston also isn’t racist. The very next night at the Red Sox game, the entire stadium gave a standing ovation to the opposing player who received those slurs, and that too is a testament to the quality of the fanbase.

There are racists among us. We know this. But we don’t want the racists to define us.

We want to be defined by one thing: our ability to make a difference on the court or on the field.

It means something to play a home game in Boston. I know home teams everywhere have the advantage, but in Boston, it’s more than an advantage. It’s a legacy. Bill Russell (and Red Auerbach) gave us that legacy, and that is one of the reasons we will always love him. Together, Russell & Auerbach taught us not to expect anything less from our teams than a championship (a lesson Tom Brady and Bill Belicheck have been reinforcing for almost fifteen years now).

As fans, we see ourselves as having one job. When the visiting team comes to town, we want them to get nervous to play in front of us. We’re not on the court or on the field, and we don’t have the talent or the discipline to develop a career in professional sports, but we do have one skill: we can get fucking rowdy, and even though we’re stuck in the seats, we can use our words and our noise to get inside their heads (not to mention the heads of the refs, who, it turns out, are really affected by home-court crowds).

That’s the one thing we can do to help our city win a championship, and we take that job very seriously.

While that rowdiness is directed at the opposing team, it has the additional benefit of charging up our players. If, as a player for the home team, you need the crowd to give you energy in the fourth quarter, the ninth inning, or the third period, you can count on Boston to give it you.

And because of that, we — the Boston crowd — can make a real difference in the game. We know we do.

As a player, that’s what you should expect from us. It doesn’t matter if you’re white or black or Canadian, if you play hard enough to stay competitive, then the fans of Boston can provide the energy you need to take it the rest of the way. We cannot give you talent, but we can give you energy; and in the playoffs, energy makes the difference. As Bill Russell once said, “The great reward is watching the other team slowly suffocate.”

But it’s not just the racist thing, or the energy thing, that makes Boston fans who we are.

Two nights ago, in game five of a seven-game series, the Celtics needed a win at home. The story of the series is that the Celtics fought tooth and nail to win two games at home, and then they got blown out of the water for two games on the road, making themselves look very, very bad on the national stage.

During the first of those road games (game 3), a young player on the opposing team named Kelly Oubre charged and shoved one the Celtics players, a white doofus named Kelly Olynyk. Now some people hate Olynyk (maybe rightfully so), but the doofus actually plays the game well sometimes, draining threes when they matter, playing defense with a real sense heart (if not always real smarts), and even causing turnovers at crucial points in the game.

Anyway, in game three, Oubre shoved Olynyk, Olynyk went flying, and controlled chaos erupted on the floor. When everything settled down, Oubre got ejected from game three and suspended for game four.

All of which meant that Oubre’s first game back after the incident was this one, game five, when the series came back to Boston.

Oubre is not a starting player. But about five minutes into the game, when the Celtics had demonstrated that this wasn’t going to be the same kind of team the Wizards faced in Washington and that the game was probably not going to go the Wizards’ way, the Boston crowd started chanting, “We want Oubre! We want Oubre!” Oubre hadn’t played yet. He was still sitting on the bench. And the Boston fans were calling him out (later in the game, the chant would change to something more profane).

That’s also what it means to be from Boston. It means that when the opposing team comes to town, we’re going to talk shit to them. We’re like those guys clustered around two fighters in the street. We’re not in the fight ourselves, but man, we’re gonna talk shit to anyone whose trying to beat our boys at home. We can’t be in the ring (which is why we can’t wear the ring), but we can talk shit if it helps our boys defend the home turf.

I love that about us.

It’s just that sometimes, the shit we say can be rather shitty.

Here’s another story. A week or so ago, soon after the racist slur incident, a fan used the jumbotron at Fenway Park to propose to his girlfriend, making the grandest gesture he could think of. And the girl said no….on the jumbotron.

And what did the Boston crowd do? It started chanting, “She said no! She said no!”

That’s ridiculous, of course, but it’s also hilarious. It doesn’t take into account how devastated that man must have felt, nor how embarrassed that woman had to be, which means in some real humane sense, it was a completely shitty thing for the crowd to do, but it’s also hilarious.

(There’s a reason Louie C.K. will always be a Boston comic, regardless of where he lives or how big he gets. With Louie, everything that is shitty about life is also hilarious. Using a master’s control of his craft, Louie’s stand-up bits and television shows demonstrate in exacting and emotional detail how shitty life human existence can be in the twenty-first century, but they also make us experience how funny it can be at the exact same timeThat’s a sensibility you get from living in Boston.)

And I love that about us. We can be shitty and funny at the exact same time and as an entire crowd: tens of thousands of people being shitty and funny together. It’s great.

And it’s part of what makes Boston Boston. And it’s why “I love that dirty water….”

Change the Channel

This is all just a TV show. That’s what I learned from this great article in Current Affairs magazine. Moderate conservatives and liberals prefer President Jed Bartlett of Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing, while the right prefers Donald Trump of The Apprentice and FOX News. Hilary Clinton, supported by the media, ran on Jed Bartlett’s platform of intelligence, competence, and moral smugness, while Donald Trump ran on FOX News‘ platform of cynicism, xenophobia, and aggression (read as “security”).

The election wasn’t an election as much as it was a study in what kind of TV shows we like to watch. Those who prefer scripted dramas voted differently from those who prefer “reality” TV.

Except, and this is what’s important from the Current Affairs article, that analysis isn’t true at all. Because reality is neither a scripted drama nor a reality TV show. It sounds trite, and no one would ever argue that it was, but it’s also important to remember: reality is neither a scripted drama nor a reality TV show.

It’s reality, with real live consequences. The people in Syria are not characters in some postmodern multimedia text; transgender people are not characters who’ll soon disappear from some screen; and ex-miners are not going hungry just for the chance to star in some capitalist’s propaganda poster. This shit is real, and it really matters to persons. Decisions made in New York, Washington D.C., London, Paris, Berlin, Beijing, etc. affects real change in the daily experiences of individuals all over the planet and not just in the power dynamics of a popular TV show called Watch the Throne.

In Our Climate Future is Actually Our Climate Present, Jon Mooallem explains that we will not experience climate change as some great calamity, but as a kind of gentrification, with human beings doing what human beings are already doing: putting our heads down and continuing to trudge on, day by day, until we die.

But it’s the job of politics to make trudging through this life just a little bit easier, not just for me and you, but for everyone.

And why wouldn’t it be? If the political truly is personal, then politics is the act of living among your fellow human beings. It’s not a game to be played at the highest professional level; the Democrats and the Republicans are not the Red Sox and the Yankees. They’re two groups of people who claim to stand for specific ways of treating other people.

The Democrats claim to stand for treating each human being with dignity and respect, and they extend that claim to embrace the moral obligation it recommends, that is, to protect and advocate for those who cannot protect or advocate for themselves. This stance does not allow for bullying, but it does allow for righteous indignation, civil (not to be read as peaceful) protest, and a willingness to engage in defensive combat.

It recommends this not just as a form of politics, but as a form of living a life. It accepts the complexity that comes from living in a democratic society where your neighbors, not to mention the millions upon millions of other people whom you don’t know and will never meet, all get a say (at some level) as to how you live your life (if you want to live your life among them, anyway).

In a democratic society as large as ours, where we can’t come to a consensus on a statement as objectively true as “The Earth is not flat,” Democrats claim the only way to interact with each other, in our homes or outside of them, is with dignity and respect and the moral obligation to defend those who cannot defend themselves.

This is not how actual Democrats behave. This is their claim as to the right way to live among your fellow human beings.

The Republicans claim the proper way to act among others is to say Fuck them. This is not the same thing as Fuck youRepublicans are Christians, after all, and good Christians don’t say “Fuck you” to one another. They will say “Fuck you” to them though, just as God said “Fuck you” to all the other thems in the Old Testament: The first-born sons of Egypt? Fuck them. The Sodom and Gomorrah? Fuck them. The Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites? Fuck them. King Ahazia? You’re fired!

But as for the rest of us — those of us who are not them — the Republicans claim we can pretty much do whatever we want.

Want to shoot someone? Make sure they’re not one of us or that you can claim you were protecting yourself; and if you can’t find someone to shoot, join the army and we’ll point your gun in the right direction.

Want to get rich? Go for it, and the best of luck to you. If someone gets in your way, fuck them.

Want to screw a girl? Don’t worry, because they secretly really want it; and if they don’t, well…fuck them.

Heard that there’s someone with an unwanted pregnancy? Fuck them for not being more responsible.

Do what you want. Do what you’re good at. And fuck them if they can’t take it.

Based on everything I’ve seen or read or experienced, that’s what the Republican Party claims is the way we should act among our fellow human beings (again, not fuck you but fuck them).

It sounds like I’m saying the Democrats are angels and the Republicans are devils. I’m not. There are plenty of Democrats who stomp on the backs of the underprivileged and plenty of Republicans who spend their days providing crucial services to those who are suffering, regardless of what the victims look like or believe.

What I am saying is that there is both a Democratic and a Republican claim about how we should act, and they differ from one another. Both are attractive, but for different reasons.

It’s a lot easier to live in a Fuck them world, and it promises to be more interesting: there’s obvious conflict in a Fuck them worldview, and as the ratings for Honey Boo Boo demonstrate, conflict itself is exciting, regardless of its content.

Living in a world where everyone is treated with dignity and respect, and where the only sanctioned conflict is against an act of injustice? That sounds predictable and boring.

Except reality is never predictable and boring. It’s difficult to treat people with dignity and respect, and the world is filled with acts of injustice. Ultimately, as the Buddhists have long argued, all life, regardless of race, class, or even species, is struggle, and it provides a near-constant engagement with both internal and external conflicts. If conflict is exciting, then nothing could be more exciting than deeply living one’s life, and at the end of the day, isn’t every life lived deeply by the one who is living it?

This conception of reality, where everyone is fighting both internal and external conflicts almost all the time, founds the Democratic claim that everyone deserves dignity and respect. If everyone is in the middle of some conflict, the last thing we should do is add to their troubles by making them the them of our Fuck them.

The Republicans, on the other hand, tell us not to worry about what they’re going through. Worry about us becoming more safe or economically better off, and fuck them if they get in the way.

Again, I’m not talking about actual Democrats and Republicans here. I’m talking about their advertisements for the way we should live our lives.

Unfortunately, too many people would rather watch Donald Trump say Fuck them than engage with the complexity of trying to actually understand them. And right now, those people are holding the remote control.

Jed Bartlett thinks we should persuade them to give it to us instead. But you can’t persuade someone out of a remote control. There’s only one thing we can do: take it by force, and fuck them if they get in the way.

Pouring Love

 

During the next two months (and then some), I’ll spend around four hours a week working one-on-one with a young person who suffers from schizophrenia. I’ll also spend time with students who are diagnosed with a variety of other social and emotional disorders (not to mention learning disorders), but it’s the student with schizophrenia who will require the most from me.

This young person is almost completely detached from reality. They suffer from delusions, hallucinations, paranoia, catatonic behavior, and disorganized speech. At any given moment, the student might break out into a terrified or stress-induced screaming or crying fit.

But…and this is a big but…this student is perhaps one of the strongest people I’ve ever met because, to some extent, they are aware of how they must appear to other people, and yet, they still come to school every day, and even on their worst days, they fight and struggle to make sure they make it to our building.

Can you imagine knowing — knowing! —  that at some point every day you were going to have a mental, emotional, and physical breakdown, and yet still finding the strength to get out of bed and go to school each day?

This student is incredible. Absolutely incredible. They sing, they paint, they read, they write. And yes, they have harrowing breakdowns, but they also find some reason, every day, to be kind and thoughtful to others, to stand up for themselves and for those they think are wronged, and to be genuinely appreciative of the talents and kindness of those around them. I don’t think more than a day or two has passed without them finding someone else in the school to let that person know how gifted or beautiful they are.

The student is a walking ball of light. It’s just that, sometimes, the light gets very dim. But that’s when it becomes my job — and the job of my colleagues — to help this student find their way out of the dark.

What’s encouraging is that, from what I have seen, the student is treated extremely well by their peers. Those who are too young or too self-involved to understand what’s happening generally stay out of the student’s way, and those who have a sense of what’s happening seem to be very supportive, offering themselves up with a level of kindness and service that impresses me to no end. We recently had to evacuate one of our buildings because the student’s breakdown was so disturbing (our school buildings are pretty small), but none of the other students complained about having to leave their classroom, nor did they hold it against the student once the episode was over. And remember, more than half of the kids at my school are here because they have a history of being unable to get along with others.

The way the student’s peers have stepped up has been amazing and inspiring to watch. That goes for my colleagues as well. In a staff meeting the other day, as we discussed ways to help the student, one of my colleagues summed up our responsibility as, “We need to just pour love on this kid right now.” We’re not doctors or psychologists; we can’t prescribe medication, and while we can effectively provide a layman’s version of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (which the DSM 5 recommends for schizophrenia disorder), we aren’t trained psychologists. We are, however, humans who have decided to spend our days helping the next generation grow into healthy adults, and we can “pour love on this kid.”

I know that the next few weeks (and let’s be honest, months and possibly years) won’t be easy with this student. But to a large extent, I am looking forward to it. While we obviously want this student to get as much help as they can, I also think that with the student body we have and the staff we have, this is also a good and supportive place for them to come every day.